Composer Alex Berko

Alex Berko, right, with composer John Wineglass and conductor Max Bragado-Darman at Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur

WHAT A DIFFERENCE 5 months can make. What a difference one week or even one moment can make. It certainly feels like a lifetime since I last sent an update—we lived in a completely different world back in January…just 5 months ago. As Tom Hanks put it in his graduation speech to Wright State University:

“Part of [our] lives will forever be identified as ‘before,’ in the same way other generations tell time like ‘that was before the war, or ‘that was before the internet,’ or ‘that was before Beyoncé.’ The word ‘before’ is going to carry great weight with [us].”

In the spirit of drawing lines between the before, the now, and the what will be, I’ll be writing this letter in a bit of a different way than in the past:
Back in February and March, I was in the thick of finishing up my first year of course work at Rice. Me and my colleague, the wonderful flutist Tyler Martin, were prepping to premiere a new piece of mine for his Master’s recital. I was working on two new commissions for Chicago-based choirs, Stare at the Sun and Constellation Men’s Ensemble. I was appointed as a Composer in Residence with Luzerne Music Center and I was teaching my wonderful Rice Preparatory department students on Saturdays. Laura and I went to our first rodeo (that is a holiday here in Texas). For very good reasons, this has all been cancelled/postponed.
My world has slowed down quite a bit and I have found a lot of comfort in that. My first year of grad school ended uneventfully in April and since then, I have settled in to my new normal. My time is spent cooking a lot, reading, running, teaching online, and continuing to write, though it has been tough to find the right notes…
A wonderful article by Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian was posted on It talked about the pressures that many artists are feeling now to create more than ever before and eloquently put the importance of prioritizing your health and well-being over work:

“My humble hope is that after all this, there will be a wild explosion of art to celebrate. The Black Plague gave us the vitality of the Renaissance. The Great Depression gave us bursts of experimentation in cinema and music. Crisis after crisis, the flowers continue to bloom, artists create new work, we find the stamina to go forward, and life carries on. But let’s process this as best as we are able. Let’s be kind to our hearts. Let’s choose to take care of ourselves now, however that individually manifests itself to each of us, so that we may best position ourselves for those projects we care so much about. With this choice, I am beginning to daydream again.” 

Now, I don’t believe that this is the time to stop creating altogether. I’m still writing, but I’m finding myself doing so in a different way. Words are coming quicker than music, but in so much of my music, words are equally, if not more important. I’m writing a lot of words and when the music is ready, I’ll have a few things to say.


I miss live performance as I’m sure you do, too. Countless premieres and performances of music and theater have been cancelled and I’m mourning for all of my gigging musician friends who have lost all of their work for the foreseeable future. What I’m holding on to is the moment when we all get to sit in a hall or stand on stage again and have our ears and hearts filled with the amazing sounds of others. To me and to so many others, music isn’t worth much if we can’t share it (not behind a screen…in person) and I know that I’m certainly missing sharing.

Come the fall, there will still be plenty of uncertainty. It may be unlikely that this year, choirs will sing again and orchestras will play again. But, at some point they will, and when that day comes, I just know that we’ll all need to hear those living, breathing sounds more than ever before. We’ll celebrate together.

I sincerely hope that you and your family are safe and healthy and finding some light in all of this darkness.

Much love,

Haydn’s Jews

HAYDN’S JEWS: Representation and Reception on the Operatic Stage. By Caryl Clark, Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-5214-5547-3

CARYL CLARK’S monograph on the subject of possible Jewish characterizations in Haydn’s music focuses on his opera Lo Speziale (The Apothecary), composed in 1768 to a libretto by the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni and first performed at the Esterhazy court for Haydn’s employer, the music-loving Prince Nikolaus I. The book’s principal contention is that the title character of this work, who is never identified as Jewish,  nevertheless is an encoded representation of the typical “stage Jew” of the time, and would have been recognized as such by contemporary audiences.  The argument for this reading is preceded by discussions of the Jewish communities in Haydn’s immediate environments in Vienna, Eisenstadt, and the Eszterháza estate, a discussion of stage Jews and previous characterizations of explicit Jewish characters in opera (citing my own work on Reinhard Keiser’s operas for the Hamburg stage in the early 18th century), a previous Singspiel in which Haydn seems to have portrayed a Jewish stereotype (but with no surviving music), and a discussion of a Haydn mass putatively aimed at Jews undergoing conversion to Catholicism.

The background material provided on the Jewish communities of the time is historically valuable as an overview, although the point it is making—Haydn’s proximity to various Jewish communities—seems incontrovertible but rather besides the main point.  It does confirm that Haydn had some experience with actual Jewish communities (that is, he must have had some interaction with Jews), but how that manifested in actual music remained to be demonstrated.  Further, I would agree that Haydn was probably familiar with the Jewish characters presented in the spoken theater of the time.

Haydn’s first Singspiel, Der krumme Teufel (The Crooked Devil, no music survives) presents the character Asmodeus, a hobbled demon walking on crutches, as a possible Jewish stereotype.  The story ultimately derives from an early 17th-century Spanish play, and is traced through an early 18th-century French novel, further through numerous Viennese stage adaptations, to Haydn’s Singspiel, first performed in 1753.  Asmodeus as a recurring character is derived from Jewish legend (though of Persian origin), but how Haydn set music for this character and whether he himself considered him to represent a Jewish stereotype is unknown. The actor who played the title character in the initial performances, Joseph Felix Kurz (known as Bernardon), had played Jewish characters in other Viennese comedies; hence her point that he probably imbued Asmodeus with some type of Jewish characterization is plausible. On the whole, however, it appears that Jewish characters in the 18th century were generally identified clearly as Jews, and not presented as some type of secretly encoded stereotype (there are not many identifiable Jews in 18th-century operas apart from Hamburg opera in the early 18th century).

Clark devotes an extensive chapter to Haydn’s masses. With an emphasis on the Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo (ca. 1773-76), named for St. John of God, the 16th-century founder of the Catholic monastic order known in Austria as the Barmherziger Brüder (the Hospitaller Brothers), Clark attempts to show that, although the occasion for which Haydn composed this mass is unknown, it was composed for the Barmherziger Brüder, who were interested in converting Jews as part of their mission (she states that the founder of the Brüder, John of God, was a converso, but cites the only source [Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 CD ROM edition, s.v. “Spain”] that apparently suggests this).  At any rate, the interest here lies principally with the omission of a line from the Credo, “Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum,” which she suggests was omitted to make the Mass more acceptable to Jews in the process of conversion.  But this argument seems quite flawed.  For one thing, this is hardly the only line in the Mass ordinary that Jews would find objectionable.  More striking, this line is missing from the Credos of three other Haydn’s masses, including the late Theresienmesse.  No convincing explanation is offered that explains all of these omissions, and another attempt to connect the Missa brevis to the Jews (equating the telescoping of some of the text to “Mauscheln,” a pejorative reference to speaking with a Yiddish inflection whose etymology derives from the Yiddish pronunciation of the name “Moshe”), seems distinctly odd.

Turning to the principal argument of the book—that the character Sempronio, the apothecary in Lo Speziale, is meant to embody a stereotype of a Jew that would be recognizable by audiences of the time—we are on no firmer ground, neither with Goldoni’s libretto nor with Haydn’s music.  The putative Jewish characteristics are Sempronio’s high voice, his lechery to the point of near incest, his miserliness and greed, his appearance, his music, and his ineptitude in his profession. Clark’s attempt to link Sempronio’s name with the “Eternal Jew” (sempre) seems forced.  Onomatopoeic, repetitive text is linked with attempts in other music of the 17th and 18th centuries to mock synagogue singing and Hebrew, though in those cases the context and effect is rather different.  The young female character, Grilletta, is Sempronio’s ward, and not his “daughter” in any sense; yet his attempts to marry her are marked in the discussion as examples of incest, an indication of what was viewed as the sexual perversion of the Jew.

Clark notes that although Goldoni intended Sempronio to be a baritone, Haydn set the part for a tenor, putting the voice into a high range that she considers to mark the “feminized” voice of the Jew:  “The aberrant, feminized tenor voice, displayed through the use of the extreme high register, falsetto, howling, and screaming, all point to the fantasizing, hyper-sexualized Jew” (118).  Haydn, though, had only four singers at his disposal for the opera:  two tenors, a soprano, and a mezzo-soprano, and so it appears that he really had no other choice.   The use of oboes, seen here as a marker of Orientalism, is, of course, a commonplace, as the oboe was the predominant woodwind instrument in the 18th century.  Clark goes on to Sempronio’s clothing, focusing on his wig (ubiquitous at the time), which she sees as standing in for circumcision:

The wig was a marker of the law maker and physician, but as a detachable body part it was also an index of displacement associated with the anxiety of loss.  By replacing the beard, this black wig, along with its size and length, stands in for the phallus, which here is ‘uncut’, signaling the anxiety associated with circumcision. (119)

Clark ultimately returns to invoking “Mauscheln” in connection with the marriage contract scene.  Yet even here, the slightly garbled language (syllables detached from longer words) really does not seem to reflect Mauscheln—and, at any rate, the text itself is Goldoni’s and hence is less likely to resemble Yiddish-inflected speech on its own.  Furthermore, the text Clark identifies as Mauscheln emanates from other characters, not Sempronio (128).

The book concludes with an extended account of Gustav Mahler and Robert Hirschfeld’s revival of the opera in 1895 as Der Apotheker.  Here, though, there really is no convincing evidence that either of them (both born Jewish) saw the title character as any kind of Jewish characterization.

Interestingly, the book concludes with an apologia in which Clark addresses possible skepticism on the part of her readers, but in which she maintains that the evidence in Lo Speziale taken as a whole is overwhelming (“…abundant musical evidence survives to support my reading of Haydn’s Judaizing of the apothecary; indeed, an abundance of textual, dramatic, vocal, and performative evidence across two centuries has here been marshalled.”) (212).  Unfortunately, none of the presented evidence is compelling.  This is not to say that the book does not contain a wealth of fascinating historical information (it does), but that in the end it fails to make its case.

Jeanne Swack, University of Wisconsin-Madison